The ‘Activate!’ seminar series, jointly organised by the ARI Asian Urbanisms Cluster and the NUS Department of Architecture, will continue through the Spring semester of the NUS 2017/2018 academic year.
Whilst the first seminar series focussed primarily on the Singaporean context, the four new sessions will expand the geographic scope to discuss issues, ideologies, and practices in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
Seminars are open to all. They will take place at the ARI seminar room (AS8 level 4), from 4:00pm-5:30pm, on the following dates:
17th January 2018
‘Affect and the New Era: Reflections on Compassion, Care and Middle-Class Subjectivity in China’ Prof. Lisa M. Hoffman, University of Washington Tacoma
7th February 2018
‘Government Policies and Community Actions for Regenerating Inner City Taipei’ Asso. Prof. Huang Liling, National Taiwan University
14th March 2018
‘Transforming a Dystopia into an Utopia: A Case Study of Hong Kong’ Prof. Ng Mee Kam, Chinese University of Hong Kong Dr. Minna Valjakka, National University of Singapore Dr. Sonia Lam-Knott, National University of Singapore
Earlier this month, AUC member Sonia Lam-Knott presented a paper titled ‘Nostalgic Spectacles: Material Representations of the Past for Popular Consumption in Hong Kong’ at the 2017 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting at Washington DC, USA. The paper, referencing existing scholarship that explores the centrality of images in processes of knowledge-production across societies, examines how historical narratives can be conveyed through spectacles produced from the built urban environment.
Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Hong Kong, the paper outlines the two different portrayals of the city’s past that are currently being advocated by the government and by grassroots actors; with the former focussing on establishing a nationalistic discourse to situate Hong Kong as being a ‘Chinese city’, and the latter emphasising ‘local’ history to assert the city’s distinctiveness from the rest of the Chinese nation. How such divergent approaches of Hong Kong’s past are expressed in material means are reviewed through an in-depth examination of two structures in the city, these being the Hong Kong Heritage Museum in Shatin managed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department branch of the government, and the Hong Kong House of Stories in Wan Chai (please see a previous post by Dr. Desmond Sham for a detailed introduction to the heritage contestations surrounding this neighbourhood) that is managed by a non-governmental social enterprise known as St. John’s Settlement in collaboration with volunteers.
The Heritage Museum and the House of Stories are each rendered in a physical form that projects a specific image of the past to the public gaze. Whereas the museum building borrows from traditional Chinese architectural styles derived from the ancient imperial/dynastic eras of China, the House of Stories retains its tonglau (shophouses that are often a product of syncretic cultural exchange during the colonial era)facade and assumes a 19th/20th century domestic aesthetic. But asides from analysing the exterior appearences and internal layouts of both spaces, the paper is also interested in how these spaces are being experienced by those exposed to them, and thus reviews the degree of affective attachments being espoused by the vernacular domain towards each of these sites. Based on fieldwork data, it was found that informants deem the appearence of the House of Stories to be more ‘familiar’, and consider the historical narrative being celebrated at this space as being ‘temporally closer’ and more relevent, to their personal memories (or ‘postmemories’) of the past. What the paper hopes to show is that emergent national-versus-local identitarian debates (exacerbated with the recent rise of localist sentiments in politics), in combination with the way in which different historical narratives are being presented through material-visual means, influences how everyday citizens in contemporary Hong Kong feel and relate to narratives of the past.
The Asian Urbanisms Cluster is pleased to invite Dr. Chloe Lai of the Urban Diary (webpage and Facebook) to ARI to give a talk about her experiences and observations regarding the making of the film ‘Rhymes of Shui Hau’.
The film documents the lifestyles and songs of the elderly inhabitants of Shui Hau, a village located on Lantau Island in Hong Kong. Examining the practices of these villagers offers a glimpse of Hong Kong’s vernacular heritage, of what life in Hong Kong was like before the territory underwent rapid industrialisation and urbanisation since the mid-twentieth century. More importantly, the film brings to the forefront the voices of communities that have long been marginalised within mainstream societal and academic discourses.
The film screening will be immediately followed with a discussion by Dr. Lai, titled ‘Everyday Life as a Cultural Right in Postcolonial Hong Kong’. The talk will feature themes addressed within the film; introduce what the Urban Diary aspires to do; and broadly explore the importance of taking vernacular stories from the domain of everyday life into account, as a means of developing a more sustainable way of urban living for the future.
The event will take place on 26th January 2018, from 3pm until 5pm at the ARI Seminar Room (AS8, Level 4). It is open to all, and attendance is free. More information about the event, and the registration link, can be found here.
Details about the film:
Executive Producer: Chloe Lai
Director: Chan Ho-lun Fredie
Aerial Cinematographer: Herman Lau
Wai Tau Waa Translation: Mink Chan, Chu Tsz-yui, The Hong Kong Bird Watching Society
Text: Haider Kikabhoy, Teresa Ho, Hung Wing-hei, Charlie Lam, Jenny Li
Length of Film: 49 minutes
Land reclamation is a hot topic in Singapore and Malaysia these days. As a recent New York Times article observed, “land is Singapore’s most cherished resource” and land reclamation has been a chief component of the island archipelago’s development since the 19th century. Even just since its founding independent nation 52 years ago, Singapore has grown in size by almost a quarter: from 224 square miles to 277. By 2030, the government wants Singapore to measure nearly 300 square miles. This is partially related to Singapore’s ambitious targets for population growth and economic development (iconic landmarks such as the Esplanade, Marina Bay Sands, and even the Merlion are all built on reclaimed land). It is also premised in founding Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew’s vision for Singapore, which was in part based on a struggle against its small size.
De Koninck shared the decades of research that went into his book at a recent book launch at the Asia Research Institute on May 29th. The launch attracted an overwhelming audience – which left standing room only in our Seminar Room – consisting of local artists, students, heritage advocates, and established local academics from NUS and beyond. During his talk, Professor De Koninck debunked several myths underpinning the logic of land reclamation —such as that of land scarcity—and raised keen observations surrounding changes in the territoriality and topography of Singapore, such as the intentional softening of urban development through the provision of greenspace, in the form of parks and green dividers between roads. Given the controversial nature of some of De Konick’s arguments, there was a somewhat heated Q&A session where he and members of the audience exchanged views on topics including the alienation of Singaporean heritage and identity through landscape transformation.
But land reclamation is increasingly attracting concern from residents, activists and scientists. This is in part due to the increased scale of land reclamation, enabled through technological advances, and the vulnerabilities that this creates. This is combined with increasing awareness of the dangers associated with global climate change and anticipated sea level rise over the next century. There are also the grave socio-environmental consequences associated with sand mining, which is taking place in rural areas across the tropical world to feed the urban development appetite of mega cities like Singapore. This is a phenomena that a recent article in The Guardian atly described as the “global environmental crisis you’ve probably never heard of, and is the topic of our Senior Research Fellow Michelle Miller‘s current research on Indonesia. In the past, Singapore’s modest land reclamation projects (like Boat Quay) were completed using dirt and rock from extinct hills, like Ann Siang Hill which used to mark the western urban boundary of Singapore. Singapore still continues this practice through the reuse of material that is excavated during the construction of MRT (subway) tunnels, which is stored in a heavily protected and fortified reserve near the Eastern neighborhood of Bedok. But this still isn’t sufficient for Singapore’s land reclamation projects, so sand is imported from increasingly distant places, as neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia have stopped exporting sand to the island-city (for political and environmental reasons).
But environmental concerns are not the only consequences of Singapore’s extensive land reclamation and territorial metamorphosis. The constant ‘freeing up of land’ in Singapore for development purposes, has, as De Koninck noted in his talk, resulted in the destruction, of culturally sacred spaces, which is premised upon a cultural foundation whereby “nothing is sacred, nothing is permanent, nothing is culturally untouchable”. This was also touched upon in the aforementioned New York Times article, which noted that Singapore’s approach to development can make it seem as though the relocation of its people — “the living as well as the dead — can seem like pieces on a checkerboard”. Indeed, this is a controversy that has been ongoing over the past several years with the planned highway that will bisect one of the last remaining Chinese cemeteries – Bukit Brown – in the central part of the island, which will result in the exhuming of graves. This is a topic that our own Huang Jianli and Kenneth Dean have worked on, in the wake of significant civil society activism to preserve the site. Unfortunately, given the nature of a recent grant that was awarded to Prof Dean, it seems that Singapore’s strategy will be of documenting – rather than preserving – the graves.
In closing, it should be noted that land reclamation is not only a problem specific to Singapore. Indeed, each time I cross the causeway from Singapore to Malaysia, Johor Bahru and the new Iskandar Malaysia project seems to get closer. My current research in Penang, Malaysia partially concerns the ambitious land reclamation projects that are currently being launched by the State government in order to finance the extremely capital intensive Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP). As in Singapore, there has also been talk in Hong Kong of creating floating islands in the sea to support their urban and territorial expansion. This is a topic which Andrew Toland has discussed in his book chapter ‘Hong Kong’s Artificial Anti-Archipelago and the Unnaturing of the Natural’, featured in the recent edited volume ‘Places of Nature in Ecologies of Urbanism’, published by Hong Kong University Press. While cities have always had a hate-love relationship with nature, such works bring urgent attention to the increasing artificiality and alienation of our cities from the natural environment. This is thus a critical issue that deserves the attention of critical urban scholars, not only in Asia-Pacific, but around the world.
What are the issues surrounding the conservation of urban heritage in Malaysia’s rapidly urbanising cities? This is the seemingly simple question that I set out to explore in my current postdoctoral work at ARI, focusing primarily on the UNESCO World Heritage City of Penang. However, the more that I thought about this question, and began some preliminary research, it quickly became evident that there is more to the question than I initially thought.
I first set out to focus on cultural heritage, as this seemed to be at the core of disputes surrounding redevelopment and urban regeneration in the UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site of Penang. However, I soon realised that the ongoing conservation efforts in Penang, and concerns about urban (re)development are about more than just the island’s cultural heritage. Rather, the concepts of cultural and natural heritage, which have been largely kept apart both in academic studies on heritage conservation, and UNESCO’s distinction between Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites, are both deeply intertwined. This is particularly true in South/East Asian cities like Singapore, Penang, and Hong Kong, which have an abundance of both cultural and natural attributes that create attachment to place amongst locals and visitors alike. As Jenkins and King (2010: 48) have noted: “recently there has been an emergence of conservation awareness and the realisation among some local groups of the importance of their urban heritage for the general well-being of their environment”.
The importance of both natural and cultural heritage to Penang’s inhabitants have become particularly discernible with the announcement of the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP). Penang’s civil society organisations, most notably the Penang Forum, which subsequently released its detailed critique of the Plan, encapsulated by the slogan Better, Cheaper, Faster. This document critically evaluates the perceived social, economic and environmental unsustainability of the PTMP, while offering a revised plan that would be better, cheaper and faster. Amongst the numerous areas of concern, particular issues are related to the proposed LRT system, which would pose both aesthetic and physical threats to the heritage landscape of George Town. In addition, the proposed undersea tunnel linking Penang Island with Peninsular Malaysia, and the substantial land reclamation required to finance the project, have posed additional environmental concerns.
Perhaps surprisingly, land reclamation is a recurrent theme in heritage controversies in South/East Asian Cities. Singapore, Melaka, Penang and Hong Kong have all experienced substantial land reclamation, which has been hotly contested by local civil society organisations. In Hong Kong, land reclamation emerged for two reasons: first, given the island’s limited amount of developable land and the high population; and second, the State’s dependence on it as a revenue stream, particularly in the 1980s (see Lu, 2009). This situation is similar to Penang, which receives a limited budget from the Malaysian federal government and thus relies on the unsustainable income stream of land sale to corporate land developers. Since the State Government has now sold most of its remaining land, it now must reclaim additional land, which will mostly be used for the development of high rise luxury condos, hotels and cruise ship terminals. Penang has now also been digging into its forested hillsides for condo development, which has caused landslides, and sinkholes under the nearby roads and properties due to the changing water table. The reclamation of land in these cities is also dialectically related to heritage conservation, because the local governments have sought to overcome heritage-related constraints on development (i.e. UNESCO zones in George Town and Melaka) by reclaiming land to ‘take the pressure off the historical parts of the city’ (King, 2016: 153).
For instance, in Melaka, the State Government’s focus on megadevelopment and tourism revenue has resulted in the destruction of the city’s harbour and waterfront area – which is arguably its historic raison d’être – only to be replaced by a large swathe of reclaimed land (see King, 2016: 151; Cartier, 1998). This reclaimed land has been used primarily for high-rise buildings, hotels, shopping malls, and some semi-detached housing. Despite the failure of the Pulau Melaka development (Melaka Island – constructed of reclaimed land), work is currently underway to reclaim even more land along the Melaka coast, known as Melaka Gateway. This development would envelop the Pulau Melaka development, in order to rid the State Government of the white elephant that it has created since its completion, over ten years ago. Such developments pose not only environmental consequences for the region, but also social issues, particularly for the Kristang (hybrid Malaccan/Portuguese) community and their sea-based livelihood, as their “coastal location has been transformed into an inland one” (King, 2016: 153).
Of course, the dynamics between government, civil society and other stakeholders is also a central component of this research. Penang has been credited with having a more vibrant and successful civil society community than other Malaysian – and, indeed, Asian – cities. The success of heritage preservation there has been credited to the “interplay of fight and talk” between the government and civil society (ibid). Yet, the relationship is far from perfect. For instance, a Penang Forum Member recently wrote a letter to UNESCO, highlighting the considerable impact that the proposed PTMP plan would have on the heritage value of the city. In response, the Chief Minister of Penang, Lim Guan Eng said the letter was “like a stab in the back”, given that the author of the letter is an elected MP in Penang. Lim explained that the PTMP is “crucial, a life changer that can affect every citizen in the state, and will provide for the economic prosperity of Penang until 2050” (ibid). These comments are evocative of the attitude of the Malaysian government’s narrow focus on (capital D) development as the way forward for Malaysia. It also highlights the extent to which constructive criticism on behalf of civil society, and other stakeholders is (not) valued by the government. As Jenkins and King (2010: 46) have lamented: “there appears to be confusion in the Municipal Council (Majlis Perbandaran Pulau Pinang [MPPP]) as to what is meant by conservation as an integral part of development…just as there is a preoccupation with ‘the tallest, the biggest, the longest and the widest”.
If you are interested in discussing these issues further, I would encourage you to attend ARI’s upcoming seminar ‘The Natural Heritage and Environmental Costs of Penang’s Development’ by Dr Kam Suan Pheng, an activist/scholar, and a Penangite, who has been actively campaigning for the conservation of Penang’s urban heritage for a truly ‘Cleaner, Greener Penang’ (31 October, 2016). I will also be presenting a longer version of this post at the later ARI Workshop ‘Resilient Cities for Human Flourishing: Governing the Asia-Pacific Urban Transition in the Anthropocene’(March 2-3, 2017).
References and Further Reading
Cartier, C., 1998. Megadevelopment in Malaysia: From Heritage Landscapes to “Leisurescapes” in Melaka’s Tourism Sector. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 19, 151–76.
Jenkins, G., King, V.T., 2003. Heritage and development in a Malaysian city: George Town under threat? Indonesia and the Malay World 31, 44–57. doi:10.1080/13639810304441
Lu, T.L. 2009. Heritage Conservation in Post‐colonial Hong Kong. International Journal of Heritage Studies 15, 258–272. doi:10.1080/13527250902890969
Asia Research Institute (National University of Singapore)